"Technology builds bigger soapbox" (SJ Mercury News)

The article below appears in today's San Jose Mercury News (Sunday, Dec. 3, 2006.)  It was written by columnist Scott Herhold.

Herhold: Technology builds bigger soapbox

By Scott Herhold

Mercury News

In the primitive days of politics, neighbors trying to fight an environmentally questionable project on 1,000 acres near their homes might have to depend on word of mouth, a telephone chain to summon the faithful to endless public meetings.

But this is the era of iPods, Blackberries and Google Earth, when the digital can trump the verbal, when even a national leader can be recruited to a local cause through the power of a display on the Web.

That brings me to a tale that includes former Vice President Al Gore, the trees above Lexington Reservoir and the ingenuity of Rebecca Moore, a Google Earth engineer who lives in the Los Gatos mountains.

Here's the background: Citing the need for fire protection, the San Jose Water Co. has submitted a plan to log 1,000 acres of its land in the mountains above Los Gatos.

The plan has prompted sustained protest from the neighbors, who insist that the water company's plans will degrade the water quality and increase the danger of fire.

Devil in details

I don't pretend to understand the details, which is where the good and bad of logging resides. From my quick reading, it strikes me that the neighbors have raised legitimate questions about plans to cut larger trees, defined as more than 24 inches in diameter.

But this story isn't so much about the rights and wrongs of the issue as it is about the way the debate has unfolded politically and technologically. The two strands merge.

About 15 months ago, in September 2005, the water company sent a notice to neighbors of their intent to harvest timber, complete with a somewhat sketchy map. One of the people who got it was Rebecca Moore, who worked on developing Google Earth, the cool Web feature that lets you zoom down from outer space to see your back yard.

Other folks might have shrugged. Moore created a virtual Google Earth ``flyover,'' which gives you the impression of traversing the logging area in a helicopter at 1,000 feet. You can see it yourself by going to www.mountainresource.org/nail, and scrolling down until you see the Google Earth image.

When Moore showed the flyover on a big screen to neighbors who packed a community meeting, it had a huge impact, showing how large the logging area is and how close to schools and homes. ``I essentially flew everyone up the Los Gatos Creek canyon,'' she told me. ``It just electrified the room.''

View from the top

Perhaps her best-known convert came to the cause eight months later. Gore, a senior adviser to Google and the central figure in the movie ``An Inconvenient Truth,'' wanted to see how Google Earth worked. After showing him a couple of global examples, Moore showed him the Los Gatos Creek flyover.

``He was very struck by it,'' she remembered. ``He immediately offered to help. I was sort of stunned at his generous offer.''

That led to a statement last week from Gore that came out strongly against San Jose Water's logging plans. ``The proposal is deeply flawed,'' he said. ``The commercial logging of these trees simply makes no sense.''

In response, the Big Creek Lumber Co., which is planning the cutting on San Jose Water's property, has said it will formally invite Gore to come look at other logging it has done.

``We think what Big Creek is doing is precisely the kind of land stewardship and responsible forward-looking business practices that he's been advocating for years,'' said Bob Berlage, a spokesman for Big Creek, a family-run firm that has a reputation for not clear-cutting forests.

So the kindling's in the fire. Or the logs are piled high. Whatever. With the support of the inventor of the Internet at stake, could it be anything other than a flaming controversy?


Contact Scott Herhold at sherhold@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5877.

Original article may be found here



Terry Clark
December 3, 2006